In my research into the ways people who cope well with chronic pain do so on a daily basis, I learned that there are no simple answers, and no recipes but some common themes. Firstly, people need to make sense of their pain and become their own pain expert – no-one else knows what it’s like to have YOUR pain. Secondly, people use exercise and mindfulness to deal with the “head space” stuff that chronic pain gives you. Exercising wasn’t to get rid of pain or correct muscle imbalances or change posture or get fit; exercising was the best way for people to get some head space, some mental clarity about their life. Mindfulness meant noticing your pain but not judging it as bad – or good. Just noticing it and letting it be present without changing it.
Finally, people who cope well with their pain have something they really want to do – and they get on and do it. Now this sounds stupid even as I write it! After all, pain is the main reason people STOP doing what they really want to do, and surely if they could find a way to do it, they would, right? Yet, this is what I found out from people who have moderate to severe pain but who also think they’re living well. So, let’s unpack it a little.
In one of my first posts I wrote about finding out what you’re passionate about. So, if you’re passionate about being a great gardener, writing a brilliant blog, being the kind of parent you want to be or working as a mechanic, that’s the thing that motivates you to get up in the morning instead of staying in bed. That’s also the thing that will help you keep on keeping on while you deal with your pain. Now it might be that your pain means you can’t do this thing the same way as you used to do it before you got your pain. THAT’S the hard part! So… if I want to be a great gardener, I might need to change the kind of garden I have, or change the way I work in my garden, or even get someone else to help me do my garden from time to time. The important thing is that everything I do to help me with my pain allows me to also work in my garden. Ouch – that hurts!
We all grow up learning that there are “correct” or “good” or “proper” ways of doing things. You know what I mean – “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, “finish what you start”, “don’t do things by halves”. Well, when you’re dealing with chronic pain and want to keep on doing the things YOU value, sometimes you need to change or ignore those messages. Instead, we all need to develop flexible persistence.
Flexible persistence is about finding ways to achieve the end result – doing what you love – but using anything and everything to help you get there. Usually this means prioritising what you think is important over things you value less highly. For example, if I want to work in the garden, I don’t also vacuum the house, do the washing and clean the car. I also work in the garden for chunks of time so I don’t get completely overwhelmed with my pain – except when I want to finish a section off, and I’m prepared to take the consequences! I also follow up a hard day gardening with a couple of days where I do some lighter work, I make sure I have a long soak in the bath that evening, and I enjoy doing some stretches and walking the next day, to keep myself from seizing up.
Flexible persistence means sticking with a purpose until you’ve completed what you set out to do, but also using whatever you have at your disposal to do it. So if I want to be a great parent, I might not be able to stand on the sidelines cheering my son’s team for the whole game – but I might be able to be there at the end of the game to pick him up and take him out to celebrate, or I might bring a chair to the game so I can sit down, or I might take photographs of the team and give them to him. Whatever and however I can demonstrate being a good parent is what’s important, not JUST being there cheering for the whole game.
For a really amazing article written by someone who is also on the journey of living well with chronic pain, head to Go Kaleo (no, NOT the Paleo diet!), and read this post by someone who knows what dealing with chronic pain is like. I think Amber demonstrates flexible persistence.